The History of Smuggling in Sussex and Kent

by Geoff Hutchinson

Geoff Hutchinson’s reputation as a singer, speaker and historian was reinforced on the evening of July 7th when he came to speak to Wadhurst History Society.   Despite the fact that he was in competition with England’s World Cup Semi-Final, Geoff found that, contrary to his own expectations, he did indeed have an audience looking forward to hearing his talk and those of us who came to listen to him were once again spell bound by his delivery of his subject.

Geoff set the scene by singing, to his own guitar accompaniment, his setting of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Smuggler’s Song”.  A poem with which most of his listeners were very familiar, but had possibly not considered in detail and implication before.

Describing smuggling as a “massive subject”, Geoff began from the message of Kipling’s poem that where smugglers were concerned, the ordinary citizen was best advised to mind his or her own business.  The smugglers were known as “the gentlemen” because their clientele were citizens of influence and repute with incomes to match, the parson and the clerk being among the number of those paying for, and in receipt of, the contraband.  It was therefore safer to turn a blind eye!

Smuggling has a long history in this country.   Anglo Saxon Britain experienced the illicit trade after Ethelred the Unready instigated a customs levy imposed at the Port of London and dating from 1203, there is evidence, at Billingsgate, of the first organised resistance to import duty.

Wool was, for centuries, the major export from Britain and smuggling became focused in Kent and Sussex, two counties where sheep rearing was a major industry and where access to the sea was easy and could be used secretly.  Hastings, the original cinque port and Bexhill, were both used as bases for the smuggling trade until the storm in the 13th century, which destroyed the harbour at Hastings.   The sheep farmers of the marshes became known as “Owls” because of their verbal signalling methods used to support the smuggling  of their high quality product to the continent.  Brandy and other spirits were exchanged for the wool, in a trade that became known as “owling”.

Smuggling had its roots in avoiding import duty and the successive governments of the 18th and 19th centuries imposed very high levies on imported goods.  This resulted in the trade being seen as acceptable and merely cheating the government in response to the government cheating the tax payers.  A further veneer of respectability was provided by many wealthy and influential citizens who were prepared to fund the trade by buying the imported contraband.

Geoff pointed out that the smuggling trade became surrounded by an aura of romance.   An illustration of this is the veneration accorded to smugglers who came to a sticky end as a result of their activities, such as Daniel Smith, whose gravestone in Sussex, requests pity for his early demise. Another famous and admired character was one known as Smuggler Bill, an illustration of whom carries a verse which represents him as a hero because he was a ‘Free Trader’.

During the period 1700 to 1840 smuggling was at its height and there were a number of large scale gangs involved in the smuggling trade.  The trade was perceived by a number of well known figures as something to be supported.  Among these were Charles Lamb and Adam Smith, the latter commented that in his opinion ..”the smuggler would have been in every respect a good citizen”.  The truth was of course very different.  The smuggling trade was, Geoff said, one of blackmail, extortion, murder, violence, villainy and greed as it had been long before the organised, gangs of the 18th and 19th centuries, who took it to new heights of villiany.

When the economy of Kent and Sussex went into decline, smuggling became even more prevalent. By the 18th century, records show that there was a vast gap between rich and poor and a man who was fortunate enough to be in work might earn seven shillings a week to try and support a family while, by joining the smugglers for just one night, he could earn ten shillings.

Geoff described the boats used by the Smugglers, the shallow draught luggers, made of cheap wood because of their short life expectancy being used to land cargo on the remote beaches and bays of Kent and Sussex.  The names of many of these places have been passed down and are representative of what could be involved for the smugglers and those whose role it was to stop the smuggling, Marrow Bone Gap being one of them.  Other labels used by the Smuggling fraternity included The Whippings and Robin Whiting’s Hole.

The famous trappings of the Smuggling Trade, ‘tub men’, strings of pack horses, look outs in church towers using lamps, the Hastings windmill sails set to certain angles to send messages, brandy barrels hidden in churches, all of these are familiar through the romanticized view of “the gentlemen” recorded in literature.  In Kent and Sussex there is very considerable history associated with the trade and many local links can be traced.  The activities of the particularly powerful and vicious Hawkhurst Gang are well known and recorded and the Wadhurst History Society are now in the privileged position of holding documents relating to this period.

In Brede a legend arose concerning a smuggler who was also a vicar and who had lost a hand in pursuance of the trade.  His name was John Mayer and it is thought that following a visit to the area J.M. Barrie used him as the model for Captain Hook in Peter Pan.

The town of Rye has many features which exist because of the support for smuggling, connecting attics enabling quick escapes being just one. The Mermaid Inn was a haunt of smugglers and was the scene of a run in between smugglers and the Preventatives in 1740s. By this point there was a more organised attempt by the authorities, to control the trade.

Legislation was put in place by the government in an attempt to control the smugglers and their actions.  In 1746 anyone caught smuggling became liable for the Death Penalty, the worst punishment of all was seen as being hung in chains and a number of convicted smugglers met their end in this way.   In addition to the penalties for imposed on those convicted of smuggling, rewards were offered for anyone laying information against the perpetrators.  £500 was a huge sum in those days, and is a measure of the importance being given to dealing with the issue.

The crimes against the local population, committed by the smugglers in order to retain control, began to result in a backlash against the “gentlemen”.   In Goudhurst, for example, residents formed a local Militia to protect themselves against the reign of terror imposed by the local gangs.

William Pitt the Younger hated smuggling and worked hard to eliminate it. He was aware of the impact that the huge quantities of smuggled goods were having on the economy of the nation, 20% of all imported goods were smuggled in 1783, and he introduced Bills in Parliament to try to reduce levies and support legal imports.  One of these, the Hovering Bill of 1787 extended the duties of customs officials to twelve miles off shore and this did have an effect because there was then an organised naval response, which was to become the Coastguard Service.  However when war with France broke out in 1794 taxes had to be raised again to fund hostilities and levels of smuggling rose once more.

By this time the “Preventatives” or Riding Officers who were the first government officials in the response against smuggling, were a presence among coastal towns.  These were the forerunners of the customs officials who still patrol our seas and borders today, and it was then a high risk occupation, with many of the men suffering injury or death.   Kent and Sussex had a quarter of all those employed in the embryo service, a clear indicator of the level of the trade in these two counties.

From 1798 when fast, well built, Naval cutters became involved in controlling the trade the smuggling vessels found it much more difficult to slide into remote bays unnoticed. This did not stop the trade however and places such as Dymchurch, Sheerness, Romsey Marshes and Beachy Head became the scenes of vicious battles between the smugglers and the preventatives. The involvement of as many as 3000 men has been recorded on one occasion at one of these encounters on the coast of Kent.

The viciousness of the participants was not confined to the smuggling fraternity as one William McKay demonstrated.  He led an armed band of violent, ill disciplined preventatives who were hated by the local people.  They were effective against the smugglers but were vicious to all and so local people were relieved when they were disbanded.

During the Napoleonic Wars spying became a trade supported by smuggling vessels, and a Coastal Blockade, which was finally disbanded in 1831 was formed in response to this threat to National Securtity. In 1823 ten smugglers caught by the blockade, were hanged at Sydney Green and then, in 1833, the last great battle between naval personnel and the smugglers took place at Pevensey Bay.  Smuggling was, by then, on the decline.  Local people had seen the terrible violence and horrific acts of vengeance against anyone seen as an opponent to the trade. but although these factors had an impact, the major reason for the decline was lowered taxes.

With the ending of the coastal blockade the beginnings of the search and rescue response that today we associated with the RNLI and the Coastguard, began.  These were good results from a trade that really never merited Kipling’s view of it.  Geoff emphasized that in the 18th century people smuggling had long begun, and it was, and remains, a huge problem today, together with the drug traffic, illegal wild life import and all the other goods which will do for today’s smugglers what ‘brandy for the parson and baccy for the clerk’ did for their forerunners.  It will earn them huge sums of money.

Judy Alexander